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Area of Response to HIV: Key Populations
Interview was originally published in the September 2014 newsletter.
Johnny Tohme, the director of M-Coalition, has been a gay rights, sexual health, and HIV advocate in Lebanon for the past seven years. M-Coalition—launched at the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia—is the first Arab network of activists focused on MSM and HIV. Its mandate is to advocate for the health needs of MSM throughout the Arabic-speaking region. The HIV Policy and Advocacy Monitor spoke with Tohme about his contributions to HIV policy and advocacy in the Middle East and North Africa and his hopes for M-Coalition.
HIV Policy and Advocacy Monitor: Can you tell us about your past work in HIV policy and advocacy?
I have been working for seven and a half years as a gay rights advocate and for five years as an HIV advocate. My gay rights advocacy started when I attended university in Beirut and joined an organization for gay rights with a focus on health, particularly HIV. My background in psychology helped me understand the psychosocial elements and dynamics of HIV, but I only learned about the epidemiologic and preventive aspects of the epidemic when I began working at the sexual health center in Beirut two years later.
I became an HIV advocate when I joined the Marsa Sexual Health Center five years ago. The existence of the sexual health center was itself an advocacy action; we were providing non-discriminating services to everyone. At the health center, I was a counselor and a healthcare provider and learned about the importance of ensuring the right to health for vulnerable populations, particularly MSM. As the center evolved, I became more involved in campaigns to increase access to treatment services in our community and address the policy environment to ensure HIV care. The health center just received the Red Ribbon Award at the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne—an incredible way to highlight the importance of the center's work.
A couple years ago, the Global Forum on MSM and HIV's regional partners brought together activists from Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Mauritania to customize an advocacy toolkit— Speaking Out: A Toolkit for MSM-led HIV & AIDS Advocacy —for the region and produce a French version. We adapted the toolkit and launched it at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC. This initial collaboration with other activists from the region became the starting point for M-Coalition.
Currently, my main goal is guaranteeing the right to health. I want to understand the barriers to health for Lebanese and refugee MSM in Lebanon, to understand the policies currently impacting the right to health, and to identify what projects need to be implemented to address these issues.
HIV Policy and Advocacy Monitor: What has driven you to work in policy and advocacy?
Coming from a small village in northern Lebanon, I felt there was no one else like me. Once I moved to Beirut, I saw a group of people I could identify with—a community. I was drawn to the community and began working with gay rights, something that was natural for me. Once I started working for the sexual health center, everything fell into place. I became very motivated and realized I could not see myself doing anything else.
HIV Policy and Advocacy Monitor: What were the driving forces that started M-Coalition?
The Speaking Out toolkit was the starting point for M-Coalition. As a region, we developed a list of expectations and future steps to follow up on the great outcomes from our work. It was clear to a small group of us that the community could only tackle the MSM HIV epidemic and effect change if it took the lead. In the following months, we submitted funding proposals to donors. At the end of 2013, we were successful in receiving funding to hold our first regional meeting and create M-Coalition. Currently, the group is made up of members from Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauritania, with its Secretariat located in Beirut.
HIV Policy and Advocacy Monitor: What are the goals for M-Coalition in the years to come?
Eventually we would like to see not only the right to health but all rights for the MSM and LGBT communities throughout Arabic-speaking countries. We understand this is a very difficult and long process. There are a lot of communities and countries we know little about—their epidemiologic numbers, social dynamics, and sexual identity awareness. I want to ensure that gay men throughout the region have the same opportunities and services that are offered to me. With HIV, we really want to focus all efforts—advocacy, capacity building, and research—toward creating an environment that supports the implementation of prevention efforts.
HIV Policy and Advocacy Monitor: Which national policies need to change to meet the needs of MSM?
The perfect scenario would be no laws criminalizing homosexuality, freedom for people to be able to live openly with their gender identity, and no discriminatory policies against people living with HIV. We want to increase access to HIV information, increase health and psychosocial health services, and reduce stigma around health and HIV care. By 2020, we want to have increased access to care with less discrimination.
HIV Policy and Advocacy Monitor: How can civil society organizations best advocate for the needs of their communities? Especially those who are often stigmatized?
The League of Arab States finally acknowledged the growing epidemic and presence of vulnerable populations—although it did not define them—in the ministries of healths' final report. However, little work has been done to advocate for these communities, so a lot remains to be done. We first need to identify the key stakeholders in our region and do some form of mapping and analysis of the different laws within the region and sub-regions. Once we know more about the different policies throughout the region, we can better replicate and adapt successful strategies for campaigns in countries with similar backgrounds and policy environments.
HIV Policy and Advocacy Monitor: What are you currently working on?
I still work once a week as a counselor and officer for HIV testing, organizing media and outreach campaigns. All my remaining time is spent either at the M-Coalition office or doing research for my PhD.
Now that I've started work on my doctoral degree, people have begun to refer to me as a researcher. I realized I never want to be just that; I am and always will be a community member. I want to ensure that all my research and work helps the community. My work at the health center is crucial because if I stop working directly with the community, I will lose what is most important, which is the connection to the community I wish to help.
More information on the M-Coalition can be found at: www.m-coalition.org